Almost coinciding with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Official State’ visit to the United States from 21-23 June, US President Barack Obama spoke in an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, inter alia, of the difficulties of US Presidents in dealing with leaders of other countries who have 'poor’ human rights records.
He noted: “You had to do business with them because they’re important for national security reasons." He went on to add: "There are, you know, a range of economic interests”.
An Outspoken Obama: Then & Now
Obama had spelt out the dilemma faced by President Joe Biden, who served as Vice President throughout the eight years of the Obama Presidency, in responding to a letter sent to him by seventy-five Senators and members of Congress of the Democratic Party. In it, what they urged Biden to take up with Modi, was India’s discriminatory treatment of minorities, especially Muslims.
Obama suggested that Biden should raise the current situation of Indian democracy with Modi. He advised: “Part of my argument would be that if you do not protect the rights of ethnic minorities in India, then there is a strong possibility that India at some point starts pulling apart. And we’ve seen what happens when you start getting those kinds of large internal conflicts." These are particularly strong words.
This is not the first time that Obama has spoken of the need to maintain India’s democratic traditions of equality and preserve its diversity. As President, Obama visited India in January 2015 and had spoken publicly on these issues while he was in Delhi. It is doubtful that Modi, who had then gone out of his way to warmly welcome the US leader – recall Chai Pe Charcha on the green lawns of Hyderabad House – would have appreciated Obama’s comments, then or now.
Modi’s US Critics’ Partisanship
Significantly, and from a diplomatic viewpoint, wisely – Modi did not respond to them then; certainly, there was no need to do so now, especially because Biden did nothing to embarrass Modi during this important visit. Nor did Obama’s remarks or the Senators' and Congress members’ letter to Biden adversely impact the Congress' decision to accord Modi the high honour of inviting him twice to address a Joint Session of both the Senate and the House of Representatives; the first time was in 2016.
The fact that some known critics of Modi, among them US Congresswomen, decided to boycott Modi’s address, did not detract from the importance of the event either personally for Modi or India-US relations.
From the time he assumed the office of Prime Minister in May 2014, Modi decided to ignore his critics in the US. It was this section of US opinion that had compelled both the Bush and the Obama administrations to deny him a visa to visit the US when he was the chief minister of Gujarat. It is apparent that for Modi, the massive and historic mandate of the Indian people in the 2014 elections, and the even larger margin of victory in the 2019 elections, was the best answer he could give to his critics – not only in India but also abroad, including in the US.
Once Modi became Prime Minister, his US critics did not become silent but the Obama administration had to do business with him. The upward trajectory of India-US ties was set by the India-US nuclear deal worked out by President George W Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
India’s value as an economic and strategic partner was important enough for the US at the time of the deal, but it grew enormously after Xi Jinping became China’s supreme leader in 2013.
As it became increasingly clear that Xi was determined to challenge the US’ global pre-eminence, to begin with in the Indo-Pacific (erstwhile Asia Pacific), India-US ties could only become stronger. This is because India is the only country in the region with the wherewithal, motivation, and capability of becoming a ‘bulwark’ against an aggressive China.
In this situation, the influence of Modi’s critics in the US on their country’s administrations who continue to criticise him and the Sangh Parivar, especially on the treatment of minorities has grown weaker. The pull of US economic and strategic interests which Obama mentioned in his remarks to CNN have increasingly been seen in the US policies on India. And they were at their evident best during Modi’s just-concluded visit.
The few vans carrying anti-Modi and anti-Sangh Parivar slogans circling Washington DC streets could not cast a shadow on the upward movement of India-US relations as Modi was feted in Washington.
And, great substance was added to the visit by the US opening the doors, previously either shut or partially opened, on the transfer of sensitive defence technologies to India. It is a different matter when India would be in a position to absorb such technologies and truly become a ‘science power’, or an authentic producer of cutting-edge frontier technologies.
India's Response: Influence of EAM Jaishankar
What is noticeable is that Modi himself, or his government, is no longer either on the defensive or in silent mode in dealing with their US critics.
It seems this change was introduced by S Jaishankar after he became External Affairs Minister in May 2019. He decided to take on US liberal opinion and also European opinion’s criticism, if not condemnation, of Modi and the Sangh Parivar’s approach to the role of minorities in India head-on. It is he who decided to fight fire with fire.
This was witnessed in 2019 itself when he famously cancelled a meeting on Capitol Hill because it was made known practically just before the meeting, that some known Modi baiters among the Congress would be present at the meeting. He also commented in an obvious reference to a very prominent US daily newspaper which was, and continues to be critical of Modi and his government’s policies on minorities, that ‘my reputation is not made by a newspaper in New York’.
Jaishankar has, over the past four years, pursued a policy of forcefully, often abrasively, responding to Indian critics. This has earned him a ‘cult’ status, particularly among the supporters of the present dispensation.
Evidently, he has struck a deep atavistic chord in – to put bluntly – sections of Hindu opinion in India which have become increasingly impatient with either domestic or foreign critics of the present dispensation’s policies.
And for Jaishankar, this is not limited to India’s treatment of minorities.
Modi too was not on the defensive when he responded to a question on his government’s treatment of minorities in the Modi-Biden joint media briefing after their meeting on 22 June in Washington DC. Of course, as a seasoned politician; one who obviously dislikes interacting with the media – Modi did not answer the question directly.
Taking advantage of Biden’s comment, he endorsed the view that democracy was in India’s DNA. He also stressed that his government’s welfare schemes did not focus on the religious identity of those who came within their ambit. Of course, the general nature of the question assisted him.
For instance, he may have found it difficult to justify to a US audience the reason for there not being a single Muslim among the 300 BJP members of the Lok Sabha.
Economic and security issues push concerns for human rights to the background in the calculus of great powers.
There is enormous hypocrisy at the core of the international system on human rights. This is vividly illustrated in the US case. Its official reports, mandated by the Congress, on the situation of human rights are critical of the Modi government’s human rights record. But they do not influence any President’s choices on promoting US economic and strategic interests.
The only question is how openly the President’s are willing to acknowledge this. For instance, Donald Trump did not disguise his disdain for human rights; his predecessor and successor emphasising them, but there is a wide difference between US pronouncements and their practice. This was once again seen during the now-concluded Official State visit by Modi.
(The writer is a former Secretary [West], Ministry of External Affairs. He can be reached @VivekKatju. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)